The dark side of easy money


December 11, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

LIFE BECAME considerably brighter some years ago with the invention of the automatic teller machine, which I equated to the polio vaccine in terms of what it would do for mankind. I'll never forget the first time I pulled up to an ATM. Happily, I whipped out this little red card, or maybe it was a green one. I put the card in a slot. Or a hole. Whatever. Then I punched a few numbers and seconds later, two $20 bills floated gently into a plastic tray. Come to think of it, it might have been two $20s and a $10.

The point is, it was all I could do not to break out the champagne and party hats there in the parking lot.

"Is this a great country or what?!" I cried out. "You think they're doing this in Cuba?! Ha! Not a chance! Those people are lucky to find a ripe tomato!"

See, back then I was just ecstatic that ATMs would deliver me from the hell of face-to-face banking.

No more interminable waiting in line behind velvet ropes that snaked this way and that. No more grim-faced tellers whose idea of conversation is to call out "Next" in a bored voice while they file their nails.

No more airhead bank managers who gaze out at the noontime throng of customers shoehorned into their lobby and announce: "Think I'll grab some lunch."

Now a person had immediate access to his or her money, day or night -- without even stepping out of the car.

In the ensuing years, my enthusiasm for ATMs has waned considerably.

Now I know that bank machines bring their own special kind of hell, one that has nothing to do with long lines or disinterested tellers nodding off in mid-sentence.

What bank machines bring is called poverty. Because all I do is visit the bank machine.

I visit it in the morning. I visit it in the evening. I visit it on weekends.

If I need a loaf of bread, I hit the bank machine. If I need newspapers, I hit the bank machine. Whatever I need, from chewing gum to Christmas presents, I hit the bank machine.

It's gotten so bad that when I'm away from home, my wife tells callers: "Oh, you can catch him at the bank machine."

The problem, in a nutshell, is that it's too damn convenient to get money.

Here's another problem. When you take money out of the bank machine, you get a little receipt. The receipt also tells you -- in tiny letters that can barely be picked up by a photon microscope -- how much money is left in your account.

I rarely read this number. Why bother? I already have the money in my little hands. And this way, I remain blissfully ignorant of the vast sums of money I'm going through -- and the need to replace this money in my account.

So I keep taking money out and taking money out until finally the machine flashes this cheery news: "Insufficient Funds."

It's a good thing we got rid of debtors' prisons in this country. Otherwise it would only be a matter of time before some hard-eyed sheriff's deputies busted down my door and dragged me off in shackles in front of my tearful wife and children.

Speaking of children, they have even less of a grasp of how bank machines work than I do -- if that's possible. Which is why conversations such as this take place in our house all the time:

"Daddy, can we buy a new car?"

"Kids, Daddy can barely afford a Schwinn 10-speed."

"Just get money out of the bank machine."

"Well, see, there's no money in our account to . . ."

"There's no more money in the machine?"

"Yes, there's plenty of money in the machine. It's just not our money."

"You mean you can't get money from the bank?"

"Well, I could. But it would involve ski masks and handguns and a lot of frightened customers diving onto the floor. Plus you always have to worry about some eager-beaver teller slipping a dye pack in with the loot. Not to mention this whole business with the getaway car. No, it's just not worth the aggravation."

Luckily, the kids generally agree.

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